Brad Cleveland, customer service expert, consultant and author, has seen many major shifts in the customer experience industry during his 30 years’ involvement. But nothing like the last 18 months.
“I felt customer experience was important before the pandemic, but it’s absolutely imperative now,” he told Nearshore Americas during a recent interview.
Making Customer Experience Accessible
Customer experience really matters to Cleveland, who served as president and CEO at Colorado-based CX consultancy ICMI for over a decade, before acting as a senior adviser for a further 13 years. It was CX’s centrality to the success of business and the changes it is undergoing from innovations like AI that drove the decision to write his most recent book, Leading the Customer Experience: How to Chart a Course and Deliver Outstanding Results.
Below is an excerpt from Brad’s most recent book
The book is structured across 10 chapters with five recommendations in each. Rather than a straightforward, business-language instruction manual, Cleveland styled the book with an ease of understanding in mind. He didn’t want just those within the industry to achieve a better CX appreciation, but for the wider public to comprehend its role business success too.
“I set out to make the book lively in order to bring customer experience to life, and to offer my advice through stories and examples so that the book is accessible to as many people as possible,” he said.
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Funnelling customers into the right channels to receive the appropriate agent responses from within a contact center is only one side of the customer journey, he says. The process of improving customer service takes many forms and help companies achieve a clear vision of their structures and processes. By improving the external, customer-focused services, interior improvements can also be made.
“We think of customer experiennce as providing better products and services for our customers, but it also brings internal improvements. When we make things better for customers, we’re usually simplifying, cleaning up and getting to root causes internally, which means we’re more efficient and effective as an organization. Everybody wins through CX,” said Cleveland.
Customer Experience alongside Digital Transformation
Cleveland emphasizes the need for companies to have a strong CX strategy in place ahead of digital transformation so that rather than complicating or worsening the customer journey, the digitalization delivers responsive, rapid customer services.
“Digital transformation must be a part of the customer experience strategy to provide enhance services, and this is what the book goes through. Start with vision, get your team in place, build on a foundation of employee engagement, listen to the voice of the customer at a strategic level,” he said.
But as Cleveland explains in his book, if organizations can avoid the need for certain customer services through the elimination of other processes, the expense of digital transformation need not weigh too heavily on a company’s budget.
“Different parties within a company see digital transformation differently. Employees are often concerned that it will remove their jobs, CFOs love it because they believe it’ll eliminate costs. But from a CX point of view, removing work altogether is far better than digitizing it,” he explained.
This is an excerpt from Cleveland’s most recent book, Leading the Customer Experience: How to Chart a Course and Deliver Outstanding Results.
“Customer experience lives or dies in the trenches. Come with me on a consulting project, and I’ll show you an example.
My assignment was to provide a series of workshops for a new and fast- growing company. Based in Toronto, they develop and provide business soft- ware packages. The company was (and is) committed to delivering outstanding customer experiences. Their innovative software products lead the industry, and they are committed to standing behind them with top-notch support.
The workshops they asked me to provide cover customer expectations and how they’re evolving. They wanted to be sure they were staying ahead of the curve. Managers from marketing, technical support, IT, and others participated in the sessions. Beforehand, I spent a few days on an assessment, which included meeting and talking with employees and getting a sense of their culture. The deeper I looked, the more questions I began to run into.
For example, there were obvious inconsistencies in their support center— the area that provides customer service and technical support over phone, chat, and other channels. (Customer experience is far broader than customer service, but we’ll get there.) Their director mentioned to me that she was grappling with a conundrum. Most technical support reps spent an average of 10 to 12 minutes with customers. One rep had an average handling time of over 20 minutes—double that of the others. “Is that normal?” she asked. “We want to ensure our customers have a good experience. But is there a limit to what that means?”
I spent some time that afternoon speaking with staff and listening to support calls. One employee had printed emails from customers tacked to his cubicle walls—dozens of them. “Thanks so much for the awesome service!” said one. “You helped us get unstuck—and then some,” wrote another. Guess who had the long handling time? Yep!
“He’s a bit of a braggart,” whispered one of his peers to me. “I help twice as many customers in a day,” said another. When I spoke to the rep in question, it was clear to me he loved his work and just wanted to deliver outstanding service. Their workload planners had run some “what if” scenarios. Should his handling time be the norm, they felt the expenses would threaten the viability of the business.
Back to the director’s office that afternoon. “What should I do?” she asked. She had options. One would be to force the issue—set a ceiling. Exceed the threshold and you’d get a warning. But the rep with the long handling time would protest that he was the one providing the best service. He might quit. Even worse, he might stay and poison the environment, grumbling that the company doesn’t live up to its promises. (You may recall working on a team with an unhappy employee—it can be so damaging to morale).
I had other questions. How did they know the average of 11 minutes was “right”? How would they know where to set a threshold? Perhaps 11 minutes was too long. Maybe it was too short. It was just a clock, an outcome. The fact that it was an average didn’t necessarily mean it was a good target.
Their director ended up taking an approach that was very wise. She assembled a small team of several employees, including the rep with the long handling time. She put them in a conference room with a long table and provided them with index cards and markers. “Settle on the most common support call we get,” she explained, “and write each step that you go through on a card; lay them out in order.” She returned a couple of hours later to see cards neatly arranged across most of the table. There were branches here and there, reflecting the typical paths a support interaction can take.
“What did you discover?” she asked. One employee (who had a relatively short handling time) spoke up first. “I learned that I’m not taking some steps that could minimize the chance for a repeat contact. Good to know, and I’d like to make some adjustments.”
The rep with the long handling time spoke next. “Well, I am clearly walking customers through features that others aren’t. Sometimes they don’t directly relate to the question, but our customers always appreciate the help. Many say, ‘Wow, I had no idea the software could do that!’”
Now they were getting somewhere!After a robust discussion, this rep and his peers determined that he was going beyond technical support and providing, essentially, personalized training. But customers need this information, they all agreed.
Some months later, I returned to the support center. The enthusiasm was evident. The handling times of all employees had fallen into what they felt was a sensible range. The team had developed concrete quality standards to guide services. But I was the most excited about the strategy they’d put in place to improve customer experience. The teams were involved in initiatives that included:
- product improvements
- improvements to user guides and online resources
- marketing initiatives that better described benefits
- launching and facilitating a customer community that enabled customers to help each other
Support reps enjoyed lending some hours each month to these working groups across the company. The employee who once had the long handling time was involved in developing online videos and references for customers— and loving it. “We’re working on things that help all of our customers, not just those who contact us for support!”
I’ve seen so many cases where the hero of this story would instead be the villain. Where stricter controls are established, support sticks to support, and outliers are coached into compliance. Where the creativity, humanity, and joy that once existed drains from the operation. Where great customer experiences begin to die.
Your organization might be very different than this one—different size, industry, or focus. And yet, there are characteristics of customer experience common to any organization. We’ll turn to them next. But first, allow me to explain how the rest of the book is structured. Every major subheading in each chapter is a recommendation—a step I encourage you to implement as part of your customer experience initiative. Each chapter concludes with a summary of the recommendations—five each. An overall summary of all 50 recommendations follows Chapter 10.
“My goodness,” you might be thinking, “that’s a lot!” Yep, there’s a lot to customer experience. And we’re going to cover it step by step.
“Is successful customer experience based on a formula?” you might ask. “Is this book like a cookbook?”
No. If customer experiences were simply a matter of mixing the right ingredients in the right way, effective leadership wouldn’t be in such high demand. You’ve got to make decisions that are right for your customers and your organization. And the answers for you will be different than for others. Cookbook, no. Guidebook, yes—one that can bring clarity and focus to your decisions and priorities.
Let me offer some friendly advice:
Don’t try to implement all 50 recommendations by next Tuesday.
Don’t get overwhelmed—this is a journey.
Do begin taking inventory of where your organization is vis-à-vis the recommendations.
Do begin moving some of the major recommendations along, beginning with those in this chapter.
Do build support and involve others.
Do track and celebrate progress along the way!”